Gardening with Dave Allan: Primula’s brighten up your garden

Primula’s bring colour to your garden Pic: PA Gardeners have been drawn to primulas for centuries. These early spring flowers, ‘prime roses’ in Old French, have had few rivals when flowering. And with so many varieties, success was guaranteed for these ready hybridisers. Given this versatility, they’ve sailed through all the vicissitudes of fashion.

The RHS lists 170 different types of Primula, and you’re spoilt for choice at any garden centre. In Scotland , we’re very lucky to have specialist growers, like Kevock Garden Plants and Abriachan Nurseries, who offer over 100 different primulas, or May-spinks, to use their Scots name.

Climate change has turned that word on its head since my first primroses were flowering away in February, and will be at their best next month, so we don’t have to wait till May any more.

The most popular forms of Primula are Polyanthus, hybrids of primrose, Primula vulgaris, with cowslip, Primula veris. P. vulgaris subsp. sibthorpii from Greece and P. juliae from Georgia in 1911 were added to the mix to widen the colour palate.

The fussier Auriculas are Alpine plants from high mountain ledges, and since it was reckoned every plant would resolve some bodily malady, it obviously had to cure vertigo. Perhaps I should try some to overcome my horror of careering down a ski lift.

In the 17th Century, John Evelyn made much of primroses. He includes ‘Auricula, Polyanthies and Prime-roses in his list of Coronarie Flowres for the parterre & Bordures.’ These should be gathered for ‘garlands, wreaths and crowns’, not sorting out heart conditions.

The leaf shape of Alpine Auriculas led them to be described as ‘Bears Ears’, by Scots gardener John Reid in 1683. He recommended sowing in pots, but half a century later, the East Lothian landowner, James Justice preferred the open ground to let plants ‘play in the Beds… and send forth a greater Quantity of stronge Off-sets, than when their Roots are pent in by the Sides of the Pots.’

Justice reckoned that no genus offered such a ‘great Variety of good Flowers’, but this multiplicity had its drawbacks. The rich and noble inevitably came to despise overly popular plants.

As a result, Auriculas were driven downmarket in the 19th Century. With so many shapes, colours and patterns, you could expend endless time and effort developing yet more forms. This was deemed an entirely suitable hobby for the lowly artisans of Lancashire and Cheshire.

The Scots botanist John Loudon noted disparagingly that Auriculas were merely a ‘poor man’s flower, and a fine blow is rarely to be seen in the gardens of the nobility and gentry.’

The wealthy wanted to spend money, not time, and to buy expensive seed and plants specially imported from exotic places. They might even fund their own plant hunters to bring them back exclusives.

So, special species were needed for ‘special’ people and they were duly provided. As a bonus, intrepid plant hunters, like Robert Fortune in the 1860’s and George Forrest 50 years later brought back exciting tales of derring-do to add spice to their new species, Primula japonica, P. vialii and P. forrestii (now P. bullata var. forrestii).

Throughout the 1920’s and 30’s plant hunters added to the haul of acceptable ‘invasive aliens’. In 1925, Frank Kingdom-Ward found Primula florindae, which grows to 1.2m, flowers over a long period and can cope with damp places and beside watercourses.

There was such an insatiable appetite for eastern Primulas that P. sonchifolia was the first ever plant to arrive here by plane.

Durable Primulas continue to meet the fashions of the day. Primroses sit comfortably in trendy wildlife plantings, while Auriculas offer niche interest, Polyanthus have become disposable annuals, and eastern primulas reign supreme.

Plant of the week

Narcissus ‘Topolino’. Small and dainty with a lemon yellow trumpet surrounded by a white perianth. It naturalises well and can withstand the vagaries of our spring weather.

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